Russian President Vladimir Putin with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, Moscow, November 2015

Co-published with The Conversation:

All the standard PR lines were rolled out for this week’s meeting between Syria’s leader Bashar al-Assad and Russian envoy Alexander Lavrentiev in Damascus.

More than 230 officials from 30 federal executive bodies, five Russian regions, and the Russian Defense Ministry” had trekked to the Syrian capital. There were “15 agreements and memorandums on key areas of Russian-Syrian cooperation”. The “return of refugees” was a “national priority“. The Assad regime and the Kremlin “affirmed the need for reconstruction and liquidation of terrorist hotbeds”.

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But the press releases from Assad and Russian State outlets could not obscure the obvious questions. Why was Lavrentiev in Damascus for the second time in three weeks, if all was proceeding smoothly and gloriously with the Assad regime? How could the declarations be reconciled with the extent of the day-to-day crisis for most Syrians in regime areas, from shortages to blackouts to a 247% rise in food prices in the past year?

Russia has invested heavily in the Syrian conflict. It has backed the regime since the March 2011 uprising. It prevented Assad’s fall in 2015 with a massive military intervention, enabling the recapture of much of the country.

However, the value of investments can go down as well as up. Moscow’s projection of influence, especially with its bombers and special forces, comes at a high cost. Part of that might be recouped by stripping Syria’s economic carcass, claiming control of resources and industries. In the medium term, however, Russia is handcuffed to expending scarce capital on an Assad regime offering little return.

“Winning”…and Losing

Throughout the Syrian conflict, the Kremlin has made the most of its weak economic hand. After the Assad regime’s sarin attacks near Damascus in August 2013, killing more than 1,400 people, Russia deterred an immediate US response decimating the Assad regime’s airpower. More importantly, Moscow used that to take the lead in the political process, leading Washington into a cul-de-sac, sidelining the UN, and linking up with Iran and Turkey to claim the lead in negotiations.

So in September 2015, with rebels taking much of northwest and southern Syria to bring Assad and his inner circle to the point of collapse, Russia had the footing for its military operations. Alongside Iranian units on the ground, Moscow’s bombing and sieges of civilian areas — under the pretext of fighting the Islamic State — pushed the opposition out of Syria’s largest city Aleppo in December 2016. Almost all of the south, including the original site of the uprising in Daraa, was reoccupied.

But Russia, let alone Assad, hadn’t “won”. Syria was effectively fragmented into three parts. Turkey’s own military intervention in 2016 has ensured that anti-Assad groups remained in control, if under Russia-regime pressure, in the northwest. Backed by the US, a Kurdish authority has evicted ISIS and holds much of the northeast, including most of Syria’s oil and gas fields.

Syria’s GDP has fallen more than 60% since 2011. Its currency has lost almost 90% of its value on the black market. US sanctions, tightened in 2019 over the regime’s war crimes, are choking off vital supplies. The regime cannot fill tenders for wheat, rice, and sugar, and their oil lifeline from Iran is under threat. A banking crisis is Lebanon has locked up the accounts of the regime, financiers, businesses, and individual Syrians.

If the Assad elite maintain their grasp on what wealth remains, albeit purging some of their members such as Assad’s cousin Rami Makhlouf, they do so with 90% of their citizenry below the poverty line. About 13.4 million Syrians — more than 70% of people still in the country — struggle to meet daily needs with the price of basic food items 29 times higher than in March 2011. Earlier this month, the regime further reduced subsidies, doubling the price of bread and tripling the cost of home heating. Last week, the ration of subsidized bread was reduced to one pack every three days for an individual, and two packs per day for a family of four to six members.

Assad Stripping

Russia has pursued the option of grabbing spoils while Assad nominally retains power. Moscow has seized much of Syria’s phosphate production. It is partnered with a regime firm to run the port at Tartous in western Syria, near the expanding Russian military base at Hmeimim. Stroytransgaz Logistics, controlled by Vladimir Putin’s friend Gennady Timchenko, is hoping to expand into other energy infrastructure, and Moscow is maneuvering to get a foothold in the Kurdish-controlled oilfields in the northeast.

But unless the Kremlin is willing to invest resources into long-term rebuilding, this is little more than the equivalent of a corporate raider stripping assets. There is little trade in non-energy goods and services, direct investment, or development assistance.

In contrast to Iran, which has given billions of dollars in lines of credit, Russia’s support in terms of aid has been “shallow and inconsistent”. That tactic may preserve short-term profit, but it undermines Russia’s geopolitical maneuvers. Far from “regaining every inch” of Syria, as it has pledged, the regime will struggle for a modicum of legitimacy as its people struggle more and more. If Moscow has acquired a dependent state — or a portion of a state — that client is in a permanent instability.

You Break It, You Buy It

Thus Moscow’s current playbook: propaganda, bargaining, and demands not only for the removal of US and European Union sanctions, but for the “west” to put in the funds for reconstruction of regime areas. Russia’s rhetoric on return of refugees carries the implied message: Syrians should be in Syria, with Moscow leading the effort. This will be managed with financial help from the west, said Lavrentiev, despite the “tough position of a number of European countries”.

So far Russia has had little success. Of more than 3.6 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, only 16,805 voluntarily returned in 2020 and 5,124 from January to March. Of 658,000 in Jordan, just 3,466 returned in 2020 and 1,345 in the first quarter of 2021.

Earlier this month Moscow was unable to leverage its threat of a Security Council veto into Assad regime control of assistance to opposition areas. Russia conceded a year’s extension of the last crossing into northern Syria, serving 1.4 million people in Idlib Province.

Nor did the Kremlin obtain an easing of US sanctions. To the contrary, the Biden Administration announced its first extension on Wednesday, with measures against eight regime prisons and five officials.

In summer 2002, US Secretary of State Colin Powell famously invoked the “Pottery Barn rule” with President George W. Bush, who was considering the invasion of Iraq: “You break it, you buy it.” Bush ignored the rule, with consequences for the US almost 20 years later.

Now Russia faces the aftermath of its own mission far from accomplished. Soon after its 2015 military intervention, Russian officials considered whether to ease Assad out of power. Five years later, and only weeks after the leader’s staged re-election, the issue is still unresolved.

No deluge of PR about “strategic cooperation” can completely hide that reality.